Big changes are coming to the Northeast Kingdom. Jay Peak President Bill Stenger has a massive development plan with a half-a-billion-dollar price tag. One major piece of the puzzle is revitalizing Newport.
Across the Vermont border, on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, sits a popular town with French flair -- Magog, Quebec. Once a textile manufacturing town, the main industry now is tourism. "We live off tourists today," said local resident Alen Sager.
"We love this city. A little town that has so much to offer, so many restaurants and shops -- it's a nice diversion," said Jan Sullivan, a visitor from Dallas, Texas.
The action doesn't stop in Magog. The whole region north of the border brings people in. The next town over a monastery sells handmade goods along the lake shore. Magog is at the northern tip of Lake Memphremagog. About 30 miles south, at the other end of the lake, is Newport, Vermont -- a stark contrast. Magog's population is 28,000. Newport is home to 6,000. Magog's downtown shines while Newport's is struggling. Newport has the highest unemployment rate in Vermont.
But one Kingdom businessman has big dreams to transform this region. "You have one end of the lake that has accommodations and economic energy and then you have Newport," said Jay Peak President Bill Stenger. Stenger has a $300-million plan for this lakefront city. The goal -- make Newport more like Magog.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Do you think it can be as vibrant as Magog?
Bill Stenger: I don't want it to be... Magog on a Friday night in the summer has 50,000 people. I'd like half that.
Stenger says if he builds it, people will come. He knows from experience, leading a successful $275-million expansion at Jay Peak. The Newport project starts with demolition next year of several Main Street buildings to make way for a block-long, four-story development with retail offices and hotel rooms. It will be called the Renaissance Block. Next -- a nearby shopping plaza will be torn down to make way for the Marina Hotel and Conference Center. It will have 150 rooms plus restaurants and conference facilities.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Do you think there's a demand for a conference center in Newport. Why?
Bill Stenger: Because of the setting and the fact that it's in a new place.
Stenger says it's also about bringing in big business. He's already secured a Korean bio-tech company. AnC Bio plans to open a research and manufacturing plant in Newport City, promising 500 jobs. "Newport has marvelous physical assets, so if you can get capital to invest in good ideas that we have for Newport, it will thrive," Stenger said.
Stenger is finding that capital overseas. He is raising $500-million to revitalize not just Newport, but the entire Northeast Kingdom. It's through the federal EB-5 program. For half-a-million-dollars and the promise to create 10 jobs, foreign investors get green cards and are on the fast track to permanent residency.
"We're watching Jay Peak's project very closely," said Chris Johansen, who owns Northern Star Lake Cruises. His cruises take advantage of Lake Memphremagog, offering scenic tours. "It has so much to offer -- it's kind of Vermont's best kept secret so to speak," he said.
Johansen says business is steady. If Stenger's ambitious plan works he says it will definitely bring in more cash. "Being a private entrepreneur and investing -- no pun intended, a whole boat load of money -- we're just biting at the bullet. We're like, come on, let's see it happen," Johansen said.
Even Magog, with all its success, knows their Vermont neighbor to the South could be a jewel. There's a store called Newport Boutique, which at one time was trying to keep Magog residents in Magog instead of shopping across the border. "So basically they decided instead of people go out over there, they would bring the store here to the tourist, to the people who live in Magog," said the store's Lisa Rosa.
Much of Newport was built during the lumber boom in the late 1800's. It was a major stop on the railroad line between Boston and Montréal. The city has been declining since the 1950s when the mills began to close. In the mid 80's there was a plan to give the town new life, but there wasn't enough capital. In the late 90's the state funded a new a waterfront board walk and bike path, but it didn't work.
Reporter Gina Bullard: There have been projects in the past to revitalize Newport, why is this one going to work?
Bill Stenger: It's about bed base and access to capital.
Stenger says hotel accommodations will bring people in. But many locals are on edge about what this all means and if it will even happen. Several local business people told us they are skeptical of the half-a-billion-dollar plan. All refused to talk on camera about their concerns, afraid of possible retribution from Stenger, now considered the most powerful man in the Kingdom.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Why do you think they're scared to talk about you?
Bill Stenger: They shouldn't be. Anyone that works with me, or knows me, knows I'm very approachable and I listen.
Stenger say the project is bigger than he is. It's about building a new kingdom -- and better days ahead. "This is an opportunity and time that may not come again and we have a good plan. We're passionate about it. We're going as hard as we can and I think people are resistant to criticize that," Stenger said.
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